El Chapo top lieutenant wants out of prison, government opposes COVID-19 release

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner via WLS logo
Monday, July 13, 2020
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Now the former cartel top operative looks for some benefit from the government: let him out of prison early because of the COVID threat

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A key government witness against the druglord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is now looking to make the most of his deal with prosecutors. When Vicente Zambada Niebla was sentenced in a Chicago courtroom last year, he was contrite and repentant for the years he spent as El Chapo's top logistics man. Now, Zambada Niebla is learning that COVID-19 may not be a "Get out of Jail Free card", even for government cooperators.

After Zambada Niebla was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and extradited to Chicago in 2010 he began cooperating with U.S. drug agents, providing the deepest intelligence ever about Mexico's Sinaloa cartel and it's ruthless leader known as "El Chapo."

When he was sentenced in Chicago last year, Zambada Niebla's attorney said he did everything the government asked and Judge Ruben Castillo sentenced him to 15 years-two years less than prosecutors wanted.

But now the former cartel top operative looks for some benefit from the government: let him out of prison early because of the COVID threat. Thousands of inmates and staff have tested positive nationwide and 95 inmates already dead.

While the ex-druglord's requests for compassionate release have been sealed by U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, this newly filed response by the U.S. attorney is public-asking that she keep him locked up because he is "not at least 70 years old and has not served at least 30 years in prison; thus, he is ineligible to seek compassionate release."

"He has given extraordinary cooperation and the government makes that clear but he's got four strikes against them. He's not that old. He's 45, according to the government. He's not that sick, he doesn't have an underlying condition for COVID. And he has a incredibly violent dangerous path, notwithstanding his cooperation, the government is making the case that whatever credit that he should get and he should get a lot is already built into the low sentence that he received," said ABC 7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer.

The government admits Zambada Niebla provided extraordinary cooperation but that in addition to trafficking thousands of kilos of drugs, he also ordered that "acts of violence, including murders and kidnappings, be committed against other narcotics traffickers and their associates."

Zambada Niebla's attorney did not respond to an I-Team request for comment and the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment. The government is also opposing early release for another former Sinaloa operative-turned-witness, Margarito Flores-half of the Flores twins from Chicago's Little Village neighborhood who worked undercover for prosecutors and the DEA against El Chapo.